The Prince and the Fortress – Machiavelli on Architecture
In the citadel, the new mark of the city is obvious; a change of scale, deliberately meant to awe and overpower the beholder. Though the mass of the inhabitants might be poorly fed and overworked, no expense was spared to create temples and palaces whose sheer bulk and upward thrust would dominate the rest of the city. The heavy walls of hard-baked clay or solid stone would give to the ephemeral offices of state the assurance of stability and security, of unrelenting power and unshakable authority. What we now call ‘monumental architecture’ is first of all the expression of power, and power exhibits itself in the assembly of costly building materials and of all the resources of art. – Mumford
Perhaps no other thinker has encapsulated the practical dilemmas of governance with more guile than Nicolo Machiavelli. In the 15th century during the fragile period of the Great Italian Wars unfurling amongst the feuding European monarchies, principalities and city states, Nicolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a manual for rulers firmly intent on maintaining and consolidating their power. In this slim tome he argued for a political position of extreme pragmatism, advocating that cunning, deceit and ruthless exploitation of force must form part of the Prince’s diplomatic repertoire in his struggle for power.
There are two ways of deciding any contest: the one by laws, the other by force. The first is peculiar to men, the second to beasts; but when laws are not sufficiently powerful, it is necessary to recur to force: a prince ought therefore to understand how to use both these descriptions of arms. – Machiavelli
His name has become synonymous with the pursuit of power for its own ends, yet Machiavelli justified his unsentimental outlook by an appeal to cold reason during the harsh warring realities of his time. Power needed to be maintained firmly in the hands of the ruling Prince as its loss would lead to the usurpation of existing authority, thus beginning anew the inevitable descent into war and potential enslavement under occupying forces. The power of the ruler became entwined with the right to life of his subject; its assurance ensured stability in both spheres.
He was writing in Italy at a time of great cultural awakening where humanist ideals emerging in the arts were beginning to influence the nobility and an appeal was underway to reinvigorate public life with the splendour of the ancient world.
There were two kinds of past, the glorious and the mean, and the study of the humanities could help people to recover the strength of the first. –Kostoff
Architecture which expressed the glory of the ancient world in Alberti’s time was employed as a form of political propaganda, massaging the tyrannical excesses of early Renaissance rulers by enshrouding their dominions in an architectural veil of sublime respectability.
However evil you were in reality, your espousal of the new style made you respectable. There is an aspect of public relations in the popularity of Classical design among the ruling classes of Europe. –Kostoff
Overtly militaristic and defensive architectural elements such as turrets or battlements were toned down in favour of a softer approach which was more consistent with a population seeking to enjoy the benefits of peaceful life. These militaristic elements were, as Alberti put it, “inconsistent with the peaceable aspect of a well-governed city or commonwealth, as they show either a distrust of our countrymen or a design to use violence against them.” However the citizen’s demands to be governed fairly and peacefully contrasted with the ruler’s need for security – both from afar and within his domain, leaving the Prince with an architectural dilemma.
Considering whether the use of fortresses was advantageous or harmful to an incumbent monarch, Machiavelli realised that fortresses presented opportunities for enemies to gain strongholds in the Prince’s territory during an attack, whilst also providing rebellious elements of the Prince’s subjects the means to consolidate their power base through its overthrow and capture. Should the bastion fall into rebel hands it would create a stronghold, a focal point for dissent which the Prince would find more difficult to regain than to have initially repelled his home grown enemy with the support of his supporters had the fortress never existed.
Fortresses, therefore, are useful or not according to circumstances; if they do you good in one way they injure you in another. And this question can be reasoned thus: the prince who has more to fear from the people than from foreigners ought to build fortresses, but he who has more to fear from foreigners than from the people ought to leave them alone. – Machiavelli
Machiavelli’s view of the expendability of the fortress points towards a more nuanced understanding of political power which didn’t rely solely on explicit physical domination of its subjects for the Prince’s survival. In the light of new technological advances in artillery fire which were beginning to completely change the nature of warfare (leaving turrets and high walls exposed, vulnerable and ultimately redundant); Machiavelli’s placation of the mood of the Prince’s subjects is unmasked as a cynical political power play operating through architecture. Toning down an overt militaristic language had no effective military disadvantage, but the support amongst the populace in the apparent gesture towards freedom that such a move generated was key to the consolidation of the Prince’s power.
If Machiavelli taught the Prince anything, it was that political power is constantly subject to assault from a wide range of antagonistic forces and interests. To maintain power intact meant remaining constantly vigilant and adaptive in coping with evolving threats. Machiavelli’s pragmatism and flexibility extends beyond political advice on ethics or morality right up to the built environment. In his view, the militaristic or coercive deployment of architecture was politically contingent, depending upon the mood of the populace and the strength of enemy forces. He advised in the employment of architecture in the service of political consolidation, as a tool which imposed power through carefully calculated imbalances. The Machiavellian art of maintaining power is the art of maintaining and solidifying these imbalances.